Encountering God in the Psalms - A Review

Most books get reviewed when they are first out, generally within two years. Sometimes, there are classics that people will “review” years afterward, but this is generally a way of introducing people to an older book, with little intent to provide feedback to the author for his next work. This review falls more into the latter category than the former, since the author is deceased, but I make no claims that this book is a classic, merely that it is a worthy piece of scholarship that could be helpful to more than have likely encountered it. It is a book that is useful in building up the body of Christ.

Michael Travers’ most important book is a 2003 volume, Encountering God in the Psalms, which he published with Kregel shortly after he arrived at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, though the majority of the volume was authored while he was at Mississippi College. The book is about reading the Psalms. More specifically, it is about reading the Psalms both for their literary quality and their devotional power. It is in this dual purpose, well executed, that gives this book its unique quality and enduring value.

The first part of the book teaches the reader how to read the Psalms. The first three chapter of the book are dedicated to teaching readers about the nature of poetry, the structure of Hebrew poetry, the concepts of theme, genre, and musical quality. While the book is focused on a particular subset of poetry, there is a great deal of general wisdom in these chapters that teach the reader how to read poetry better.

Part Two is longer, consisting of ten chapters that walk the reader through reading select Psalms. The section begins by presenting Moses’ encounter with God as a narrative exemplar that shows the setting that is, to some degree, present for all of the various authors of Psalms. The remaining chapters deal with Psalms that are sorted by theme. Travers moves through Psalms grouped under headings that consider God as creator, covenant maker, Messiah, redeemer, way of wisdom, and other themes. Each chapter shows how the method for reading the Psalms laid out in Part One can be applied to Psalms that fit those themes.

This is a useful book because it is a book that points people toward something beyond itself or the author. In this way, Travers is much like C. S. Lewis. When Lewis wrote he was always trying to get people to see where he was pointing. In this case, Travers is pointing people through his own work toward that Psalms that are, in turn, pointing people toward the Triune God. This is, therefore, just the sort of book that will help people become better Christians.

Michael’s early research was on the devotional poets, especially John Milton. His skill with poetry comes through in this book as he brings readers to a deeper appreciation for the power of language through poetry. This is the sort of book that will shape the mind by equipping it for later study. It is not a flashy volume, but its chapters are filled with solid wisdom.

Encountering God in the Psalms is a book that will most benefit those who love Scripture and want to learn more about God through his word. It is the sort of book that requires diligence and careful reading of the text of Scripture alongside its own pages. However, it is also a book that will sharpen the reader, deepen their love for the Psalms, and likely point them to a deeper understanding of the God who inspired the psalmists. It is, in fact, a book that many pastors should pick up and that lay people should aspire to.

Encountering God in the Psalms
By Michael E. Travers

Note: This volume will be discussed in greater detail in an essay in a forthcoming volume, The Christian Mind of C.S. Lewis: Essays in Honor of Michael Travers (Wipf and Stock, 2019).

Preaching By The Book - A Review

I was impressed with the first volume in the Hobbs College Library from Oklahoma Baptist University when it was published last year. It’s taken me until this Spring to get to the most recent volume in the series, Preaching by the Book: Developing and Delivering Text-Driven Sermons, by R. Scott Pace. The book deserved to be read sooner and deserves to be read widely.

In general, the Hobbs College Library is intended to provide basic resources for students preparing for ministry or men whose entry into ministry preceded their opportunity to get formal education or training. The books are written by highly qualified authors who have spent years teaching university level students; they balance scholarly acumen with a pastoral heart to create helpful resources for the growth and health of the church.

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Pace’s volume is a little over one hundred pages in eight chapters. In Part One, he lays the groundwork for the preaching event, focusing on the nature of Scripture and the importance of properly approaching the text on its own terms. Rather than hunting for a specific text to preach (which often results in sermons that mangle the meaning of the text), Pace urges preachers to survey the text prayerfully in preparation for the study process that comes later.

In Part Two, Pace constructs the framework for the sermon with a chapter on study and interpretation of the text and another of construction of the body of the sermon. Notably, Pace emphasizes that preaching arises out of diligent, joyful study of God’s Word; study is not an onerous duty that must be accomplished because one must preach. This approach to sermon preparation is encouraging. Additionally, the emphasis on using the structure of the passage to drive the construction of the sermon helps keep Scripture at the heart of a given sermon.

In the final section, Part Three, Pace picks up the garnishes to sermons: introductions, illustrations, and invitations. He offers balanced perspectives on both introductions and illustrations, which offer helpful reminders of both the importance of the elements as well as warnings for their potential to overtake the sermon. Pace offers a perspective on invitations consistent with many evangelical Bible belt churches that will work well in that context, avoiding the ditches on that culturally appropriate practice. This chapter will be less helpful for those in other contexts (e.g., many congregations in the Northern half of the US) who would find the practice unduly awkward and disconcerting.

This is a book that puts the cookies down on the bottom shelf. It is concise, clear, and well balanced. The Hobbs Library continues a positive trajectory with this book. I look forward to many further entries into the series of ministry-minded books that are intended to serve the church.

Preaching by the Book should not be the final stop in someone’s preparation for preaching. However, this is the sort of book that would be especially useful in a mentorship program with young men considering vocational or bi-vocational ministry. It would be useful as a text at the undergraduate level in a practical ministry or preaching course. It might even serve as one of several texts in a seminary course. This is the sort of book that is worth reading and sharing with those seeking to improve their skills in the pulpit or determine whether they might be gifted for pulpit ministry.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Lessons Learned from my Dissertation Defense

I still have that feeling of contentment in light of last Tuesday. Not because of the results of the election, but because I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation. I’ll leave the politics to others; frankly, I’m just glad this election cycle is over.

Photo: The Leeds Library. Public Domain:  http://ow.ly/QmT0306bLEN

Photo: The Leeds Library. Public Domain: http://ow.ly/QmT0306bLEN

Seminary has been the best decade of my life. I started on my Master of Divinity in the Fall of 2005. It’s now the Fall of 2016 and I’ve finally completed the final step of the process. All that remains are a few typographical revisions and graduation. I’ve invested the arm and a leg that it costs to get regalia, so that’s out of the way.

For the handful of folks that read my blog and are interested, I’ve been summarizing some lessons learned from each stage of the game. Today I’m going to do the same for my dissertation defense.

Readers should recognize that some of this depends on your topic, discipline, and committee composition. However, in general, here are the lessons I learned:

1.         You really do know more about the topic than your committee. Most of my life, the person giving the examination knew the answer before asking the question. However, at my defense, there were multiple occasions that my examiners asked questions out of legitimate curiosity or simply because they weren’t aware that the literature pointed a different direction. Being able to cite specific examples and argue cogently why I wrote one thing and not another was important, and my argument was accepted because I was more current and more deeply read on my topic than the examiners.

2.         Sometimes the committee is asking questions just to see how you’ll answer. After spending years looking up to the professor, now the professors are asking you for your judgment. There were a few questions that they asked that seemed to be more concerned with the manner that I answered them than what I said. Confidence is important, but so is humility. I admitted my knowledge, but it was important to admit when we went beyond what I had researched.

3.         Part of the defense, at least at Southeastern, is an assessment of character. This was more than just a test of knowledge. The committee wanted to see what I had learned about myself from the process. For me, one of the most important lessons was to have a greater degree of compassion for the authors whose imperfect books I read. There were points in my dissertation that I knew were not as strong as others, but at some point I had to accept that was the best I could do right now and move on. Other authors are doing the same.

4.         The extra time I spent making the dissertation readable paid off. There is little doubt from the comments of my committee that working to make the prose as clear as possible encouraged them to give me grace in other areas. Readability does not replace good content, but it was worth the effort. I think that the work on the front end helped contributed to the positive outcome that includes no mandatory revisions. I have some typos to fix, but only a few hours of work.

5.         The best dissertation is still the done dissertation. Even with changing jobs and moving halfway across the country last year, the dissertation still took me only about a year and a half to write. It was much better to push through than to drag it out for two or three years. (This assumes that you aren’t waiting on research, etc.) It was worth it to write nearly every day, give up some family fun and push to completion even when taking a week off would have felt really good.

6.         I benefited greatly from choosing my general topic (environmental ethics) at the beginning of my program. That allowed me to read broadly, explore various tangential topics in seminars along the way, and finally find a good working thesis.

7.         The best way to prepare is to re-read your dissertation and review your bibliography and footnotes to refresh who the conversation partners are. I also made sure I checked the committee’s publication lists to see if there was something they were thinking about that I should be prepared to discuss.

All in all, I’m glad to be done. It was a long process; I learned a lot about my topic and about myself. Now I need to set out a research agenda for the next few years. There is a stack of books on my shelves and another set in my Amazon wish list that I have been putting off and want to catch up with. I have some kids to play with and a laundry list of small projects around the house to do. Oh, the places we can go.

Every Waking Hour - A Review

Every Waking Hour is the third installment of volumes published as part of the Economic Wisdom project at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This brief volume, written by Benjamin Quinn and Walter Strickland, focuses on the doctrine of vocation and presents it at a level accessible to the average church member.

The book consists of five content chapters in addition to its introduction, conclusion, and three brief appendices. Chapter one presents an overview of the theology of work. The next two chapters outline the concept of work as it is presented in Old and New Testaments, respectively. Chapter four focuses on the relationship between Christ, wisdom, and work. The last content chapter synthesizes the biblical data and relates it to the idea of working for God’s kingdom, being on mission, and being a good disciple. The three appendices answer the potentially sticky question of how to work with and for non-believers, describe how to evaluate your job in relation to your vocation, and offer suggestions for further reading.

Every Waking Hour is a clear, basic introduction to an important topic. After all, people spend a great deal more time working for a living than they do in church or actively praying. If we cannot redeem those hours spent on the job for the kingdom of God, then one wonders how Christianity is really valid as a totalizing worldview. The text begins with Scripture and remains close to that touchstone throughout. This is a volume that does not seek to baptize vocation, but to explain what the Bible says about it.

Strickland and Quinn exhibit a pastoral concern for Christians trying to figure out how to reconcile their workaday roles with their Christianity. They reinforce the reality that the pastor’s work is not holier than the janitors. The lowliest employee on the job has the potential to bring about redemption of some part of the world through his work. Upon reading this, one can hope readers will respond with gratitude as they have the value of their vocations affirmed beyond their ability to earn a paycheck and fund the church’s various endeavors.

For those well read in the faith and work movement, this volume adds little that is new. It is not a scholarly volume designed to stretch the field or innovatively explain the topic. Rather, it is a basic primer for the uninitiated. At just over one hundred small format pages of text, this is the sort of book that can be devoured in an airplane ride. It could also serve as a resource for a several week Sunday School elective on the intersection of faith and work.

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary has produced three volumes like this, which offer simple, clear, and basic introductions to important topics. Although such resources lack the scholarly weight of a technical monograph, this sort of resource created for the Church is likely to contribute to the welfare of a significantly larger number of Christians. As such, this book and the entire series are a welcome addition to a pastor’s library.

George Liele - The First Baptist International Missionary

William Cary often gets credit for being the first Baptist sent as missionary to the nations. He certainly deserves credit, along with pastor Andrew Fuller, for kicking off the modern missionary movement.

Adoniram Judson frequently is identified as the first American missionary for leaving the shores of the U.S. in 1812. However, he isn't the first missionary to leave this land to go overseas, nor the first Baptist. Judson is important, but there was a Baptist missionary that preceded him.

The title of the first Baptist missionary actually belongs to a black man from colonial America named George Liele.

Biography

Liele was born a slave in the colony of Virginia in 1750. He converted to Christianity in 1773 in the church of his master, Henry Sharp. He gained his freedom in 1778 from Sharp so that he could preach the gospel. In 1783, since he had sided with the British in the revolution, in order to be evacuated from America with British troops, Liele became an indentured servant in exchange for his family's passage to Jamaica. After a short time he repaid his debt and was freed again. He then turned his attention to preaching the gospel to the slave population of Jamaica.

Liele was persecuted by the plantation owners of Jamaica for preaching the gospel. But he continued to preach the gospel.

Although he pastored many years, he did not rely on his pastorate for his income but worked as a teamster/hauler and farmer to support his livelihood.

Liele is an impressive example of a faithful Christian and an important figure in black history. Below you can watch Danny Akin's tribute to Liele in the form of a sermon on the text of Galatians 6:11-18.

Preaching from Galatians 6, Dr. Akin speaks about the marks of a cross-centered ministry and how these marks are seen in the life and ministry of the first Baptist missionary to the nations, George Leile, a former African slave who planted the Gospel in Jamaica.

Every Square Inch Belongs to God

How much of creation is under Christ’s lordship? Bruce Ashford answers that question in Kuyperian fashion in Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians.

This small book packs a punch as Ashford translates his understanding of the Church-culture relationship into terms laypeople can understand and appreciate. Having spent several years living outside of the culture of the United States, Ashford gained insight into ways his understanding of Christianity was inappropriately tied up in his perception of American life.

 Ashford sums up his biggest point as he wraps up his discussion of culture,

Absolutely everything in life matters to God. He cared not only about the goings-on within the four walls of a congregational gathering, but also about the goings-on in other corners of society and culture. We must live Christianly not only as the Church gathered on Sunday morning for worship, but also as the Church scattered into the world in our work, leisure, and community life. We must take seriously our interactions in the arts, the sciences, the public square, and the academy.

 Every Square Inch seeks to show what the interface between Christianity and culture should look like.

 Summary

 After a brief introduction, Ashford demonstrates how views on culture vary. Just as a fish can’t describe water, so do we have difficulty understanding our own view on culture until someone points out distinctions between positions. In Chapter Two, Ashford explains his vision for a theology of culture, following the pattern of the biblical narrative through three movements: Creation, Fall, and Redemption/New Creation. These categories provide the rubric for much of Ashford’s academic work.

Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy L. Sayers

 In the third chapter, the topic is vocation as it relates to culture. For many, vocation means the work one does to earn wages. However, Ashford’s vision is richer and fuller, encompassing various aspects of life like family, career/work, church, etc. We are called to more than just a career, we are called to honor God in every aspect of our lives. Chapter Four outlines six case studies on engagement with culture, which helps prove Ashford’s position is valid. He uses Augustine of Hippo, Balthasar Hubmaier, Abraham Kuyper, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Francis Schaeffer as examples. Although none of these examples are expounded thoroughly, Ashford gives sufficient information to portray them accurately and to point the readers on to do further investigation for themselves.

Chapters Five through Nine all deal with particular spheres that Christians should seek to influence for Christ. In these five chapters, Ashford discusses engagement with the Arts, Sciences, Politics and the Public Square, Economics and Wealth, and Scholarship and Education. None of these chapters is a final analysis, but they do provide a helpful introduction and a place to begin the process of discovery.

Ashford concludes the book discussion the Christian Mission, which entails living all of life under Christ’s lordship and seeking to help demonstrate his Lordship in all creation. This a grand theme that permeates Scripture and pushes the Church outside her walls and into her communities for the glory of the Lord.

Analysis

In about 130 pages of content, Ashford manages to provide a solid overview of a broad sweep of Christian thought. Besides the question of the relationship between the Law and the Gospel, there are few questions more significant to Christian theology than how Christians should relate to cultures which are, most often throughout history, not distinctly Christian. Ashford’s book is a beginner’s field guide on the topic.

 This is the sort of book I would recommend as a gift as a High School or College graduation gift. It’s the sort of thing I wish I had read earlier in life. It would also be a useful tool for pastors seeking to help expose an inquiring parishioner to meaningful cultural engagement or to help someone break out of a pattern of cultural isolationism.

 As Western culture becomes increasingly post-Christian, learning to be a Christian minority will become more and more significant. Ashford’s book will help someone make a beginning step in that direction.

Ordinary: How to Turn the World Upside Down

Don’t read this book unless you are prepared to have your practice of faith challenged. When he titled this book Ordinary, Merida wasn’t describing what your ordinary life is, he was describing what your ordinary life ought to be.

It turns out that the biblical definition of ordinary is a lot different than how most of us normally life. According to Merida,

Ordinary is not a call to be more radical. If anything, it is a call to the contrary. The kingdom of God isn’t coming with light shows, and shock and awe, but with lowly acts of service. I want to push back against sensationalism and ‘rock star Christianity,’ and help people understand that they can make a powerful impact by practicing ordinary Christianity.”

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Thankful for Southeastern

By the time I am done, seminary will have been the best decade of my life.

There’s a punchline there, but there is some reality, too. Lord willing, I will complete my PhD in Theological Studies with an emphasis in Christian Ethics by May of 2016.

I began my seminary studies in August of 2005 while I was still stationed on the USS JIMMY CARTER. I still remember watching the first DVD lecture while I was sitting in the wardroom several hundred feet underwater.

My daughter was born a few months later. I had to apologize to the distance learning office at the seminary because I accidentally left one of the lecture DVDs at the hospital.

Since then, I have finished my MDiv in Christian Ministry. That took me until the spring semester of 2011. I worked full-time through almost all of that time period.

By the time I walked across the stage to receive my diploma from Danny Akin, I was already admitted to the PhD program. I was tired, but ready to get started.

For two more years I continued to work full-time at a commercial nuclear power station 42 miles from my home in Wake Forest. I made an hour long trip each way, each day, investing more than one man-year of time in the car over the five years I worked there. It was hard work, but good work. Most of the time I enjoyed it.

In June of 2013, when I was offered my present position on the seminary staff I jumped at it. I was tired. My family was tired. But that was not the only reason I took the job.

Making a Shift

I actually started my seminary education at another institution. However, after I started taking an Ethics class at Southeastern’s extension center in Charleston, SC I started to think about switching.

Then, one day, Danny Akin called me personally to invite me to visit the campus. When the President of an institution takes the time to call, it is probably worth going.

It was worth the visit.

On the campus of Southeastern, I found the opportunity for an education equal to my previous seminary. However, I also found an institutional focus that was focused, in a direct and unswerving way, on the Great Commission.

Southeastern is a Great Commission seminary.

We changed our plans. We were going to move to Wake Forest to finish seminary. At the time we figured we would only be there for a couple of years.

Working through Delays

I was living alone in Wake Forest for a month while my wife finished the year as a teacher in South Carolina. As the prospect of her paycheck ending loomed, the house in South Carolina still hadn’t sold. So I interviewed for a job that would take too much time and which was too far away.

I took the job because our medical insurance costs were about to jump, we had a mortgage and rent to pay, and our savings couldn’t last forever.

Instead of going full-time, I became a very part-time student. I took one or two classes a semester, watching online videos on Saturday mornings and writing papers whenever I could.

Really, that isn’t too far from normal for many of the students at Southeastern.

I tried to get a job on campus for years. When a position finally opened up I jumped at it, even though it entailed a large pay cut.

Working on Campus

I serve in an administrative position at Southeastern. It’s the kind of administrative position that would cause a lot of people to lose their sanctification. I calculate numbers, write reports, and do whatever odd jobs the Provost assigns me. There isn’t a lot of glory in the work.

However, since I’ve served in this position, I’ve had more “Thank You” e-mails and comments than in several years of my previous work experience. This is a place where people are genuinely kind––the façade matches the reality.

In the past year and a half, I’ve seen this institution demonstrate genuine concern for students, faculty, and staff. There is a real sense of service at Southeastern.

We seek to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ by equipping students to serve the church and fulfill the Great Commission.

This process starts with the way we treat each other and moves outward from there. We certainly aren’t perfect, but there is a genuine effort made to demonstrate kindness as we work together for the kingdom.

Being Thankful

Graduation is, I hope, only a year and a half away. When that time comes, I am not sure what the future holds. I may have opportunities to teach at a college or seminary, or to serve in a local church. I may have the opportunity to go back to work in commercial nuclear power or even to stay here in an administrative capacity.

Whatever opportunities await me after graduation, I look forward to looking back with thanksgiving at this time at Southeastern Seminary.

I am thankful to have been trained by world-class scholars who are more excited about seeing people come to Christ and the gospel preached to the nations than to have their names on the covers of books. This is good for a young scholar to see.

I am thankful to the many individual donors and the whole Southern Baptist Convention as they support the work here, keeping tuition costs as low as possible. This has made my education, and the education of thousands of others possible.

I am thankful for the friends I’ve made in the seminary community. We don’t always agree on everything, but we all have the same goal: to fulfill the Great Commission. This makes the monumental task of taking the Gospel to the nations imaginable.